The Climate Emergency

Richard Benyon Excerpts
Thursday 17th October 2019

(11 months, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Dame Rosie Winterton Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Rosie Winterton) - Hansard
17 Oct 2019, 2:20 p.m.

As colleagues can see, there is massive interest in this debate. I will therefore impose a four-minute time limit. It will apply after the Scottish National party Front-Bencher, but I am sure the next speaker will bear it in mind.

Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Ind) Hansard
17 Oct 2019, 2:22 p.m.

I will, Madam Deputy Speaker. Every time I stand up in this House now I am conscious that it could be the last time I speak here, but if it is, I cannot think of a better subject. There is something worth celebrating: the degree of cross-party consensus on this global issue. Although there are different nuances as to what the solutions are, what more the Government should be doing and what the record of the other side was, we should think about what happens in the United States, where this is a deeply partisan issue that divides on political grounds. We must welcome the fact that we agree with so much of the science behind this.

This is an international problem; the United Kingdom is responsible for 1.2% of global emissions, whereas China is responsible for 27.5%. In recognising the international nature of the global problem that we face, I celebrate the Prime Minister’s announcement at the United Nations General Assembly in New York of a doubling, to £11.6 billion, in our contribution to the international climate fund. We are helping other countries to achieve the level of decarbonisation that we have achieved here. My right hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry), who was the climate change Minister, told me that she would frequently sit in Council meetings in Brussels looking across the table at people talking nice talk about carbon emissions but not achieving even half of what this country has achieved since 1990. We have decarbonised by 37% whereas France has done so by just 13% and Spain has actually increased its emissions over that period.

Yesterday, I met a senior member of Extinction Rebellion and when discussing things with him and many of his colleagues in recent weeks around this part of town I have tried to understand what is going on. Is it a revolution? Is it a movement? I am with them in spirit, but not in effect. My worry is this: our constituents are, broadly speaking, sympathetic to what ER wants to achieve, and what we are trying to achieve here in the new legislation and on the other subjects we talk about relating to climate change, but they will soon start to turn a tin ear to an organisation that stops people travelling by public transport. I know this is a wonderfully free-flowing, slightly anarchic organisation, and there is something glorious about seeing it, but there is also something deeply worrying if it is going to turn people we need to be supporting our cause away from it.

I wish to make one final point. The ambitions in the Environment Bill are very high indeed. I have been involved in some aspects of it, and I am pleased to see that it has survived mauling by other Departments, Bill Committees and all the things that usually weaken legislation, and that it is strong. I am sure it will be improved as it goes through its process. I shall leave the House with this thought: we face a global problem, and Britain is currently a leader in decarbonising, in ocean protection and in trying to address the declines in biodiversity, but if we do that just within England and the UK, we will have failed. We need to keep the international focus and make sure that we are working with others. I hope that I will have the chance to vote the Environment Bill into law before the next election.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock (Edinburgh North and Leith) (SNP) - Parliament Live - Hansard
17 Oct 2019, 12:55 p.m.

The climate emergency seems to be the kind of emergency where a lot gets said and a lot less gets done. We meet here in this leaking, cavernous, old museum to discuss this climate emergency while outside it people have been banned from protesting about the possible extinction of us as a species. That is an interesting juxtaposition—one to note for our memoirs, should any of us ever get to write them.

I was in Aberdeen at the weekend, for the social event of the season, of course. There is something about the granite that whispers about the enormous length of time that this planet has been spinning around, changing, developing and surviving. You get to thinking about the species that no longer exist, about how some of the extinction events were on a massive scale and about how no species is guaranteed to survive any of those events—that means us too, whether the protests have been banned or not. But we would never know it from looking at the political and governmental response—or inaction—to this emergency.

This is not something that has been sprung on us, either. It is not as though this is news that no one saw coming. The man with the cleft stick has not just arrived, out of breath and anxious, with the news that we are all stuffed. Rachel Carson wrote “Silent Spring” nearly 60 years ago—something that we mark as one of the base cases of the modern environmental movement, but she was not the first voice. George Perkins Marsh spoke about the urban heat island effect and the greenhouse effect, and called for a more considered and sustainable development. That was in 1847, three weeks and 162 years ago. In his lecture, he commented that the ideas were not new even then and that he had borrowed them from Peter Pallas, a Prussian zoologist of the 18th century.

The Irish physicist John Tyndall proved the link between atmospheric carbon dioxide and the greenhouse effect in 1859. Later that century, 1896 to be precise, the Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius calculated how much atmospheric carbon dioxide contributes to global warming and published the first calculation of the global warming effects of human emissions of CO2. His work inspired the American Thomas Chamberlin, who published the next year on the CO2 feedback loop that drove the ice ages and might now be driving us to a tipping point. In 1934, the US Weather Bureau issued its first analysis of temperature change, which inspired the Englishman Guy Callendar to analyse historical temperature records and calculate a half-degree warming between 1890 and 1935. From there, he built the theory that burning fuel increases atmospheric CO2 and he coined the term “greenhouse effect” in 1938. In 1965, Lyndon Johnson’s Science Advisory Committee said that pollutants were causing climate change and time was running out to turn it round.

The science is not new; it has been there for 250 years or so. It has, for sure, been developing, but it is not some fad; it is not a crazy fashion that the kids are all getting down to. It is dusty old stuff from the history tomes. But here we are talking again about the climate emergency, and protestors have been banned from London. There is a massive irony in the failure of this UK Government to take any sort of effective action, in that the greatest hero for many of them would be Margaret Thatcher, and she was the first leader of a major state to call for action on climate change. The 1988 Toronto conference was treated to some stark evidence produced by scientists. Thatcher, perhaps because her training as a chemist made it easier for her to understand the language, took up the baton and issued the call. She said it was a key issue and her Government allocated additional funding to climate research. It was, however, mainly relabelled or redirected from elsewhere—they were Tories, after all. Thatcher made that call 31 years ago, yet here we are once again talking about the climate emergency and the protests are banned.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established in 1988 and in 1990 issued its first report, which confirmed the past scientific findings and issued warnings for the future. Those warnings have continued ever since, but I am starting to wonder whether familiarity is breeding contempt, because the warnings are getting starker and the flash headlines are getting scarier, but the action is not getting any more urgent.

The Environment Bill, which we finally got a sniff of this week, appears to be a howler of a missed opportunity. Apart from the toil of reintroducing EU protections into UK legislation, it misses the chance to be ambitious and claim a future worth having. It promises net zero emissions in 31 years—so, incredibly, we are at the halfway point between Thatcher pledging that the UK would get serious about the environment and the Government actually doing something. If the captain of the Titanic had been warned about the iceberg well in advance and started a discussion about what to do that carried on long enough to watch the thing tear a hole in the side of the ship, while the debate was still about which way to turn, he would be in about the same position we are in now. It is past time for talking and long past time that we should have been doing. It is time to inject a sense of urgency into the climate emergency.

The House can take it as read that the Scottish Government are doing things better, but this should not really be about party political point scoring or engaging in the constitutional debate. Let us see what the UK Government could offer to help to address the problems we all face. It is time the Government introduced some real measures to address the UK’s greenhouse gas output. They could copy Scotland by being guided by the Committee on Climate Change. Members may have heard of that committee; it was set up by the UK Government, although its calls to action are little heard by Whitehall. They are heard in Scotland, though, and the Scottish Parliament and Government have taken action. The climate change Act kicked off a serious attempt at addressing the problems, and it has not abated since. That is why the United Nations climate action conference will be in Glasgow next year.